Stairway to the Stars
Release date: October 1, 2021
Label: Outside in Music
Stairway to the Stars is an intimate, pared-down glance into renowned pianist Miki Yamanaka’s musical ethos. A follow-up to 2020’s Human Dust Suite, Stairway to the Stars was recorded on August 12, 2020. Initially slated to be recorded live in front of an audience at Mezzrow Jazz Club during one of Yamanaka’s monthly weekend performances, 2020 had other plans for this esteemed pianist as the city shut down amidst a global health crisis. Recorded at home, Stairway to the Stars captures a fiercely immersive trio session featuring Miki Yamanaka on piano alongside consummate bassist Orlando le Fleming and acclaimed saxophonist Mark Turner.
2020 was no ordinary year, and this is no ordinary album – Stairway to the Stars features a drumless configuration of piano, saxophone and bass and yet does not sacrifice one iota of stellar rhythmic invention. Yamanaka brings a nuanced intensity to the eight tunes presented on this album, especially her two original pieces, “Oatmeal” and “Wonder”. Stairway to the Stars is released while the pianist, composer and bandleader is fresh off the heels from her second studio release Human Dust Suite, which was hailed by master organist Larry Goldings as “a wonderful example of the breadth of Miki’s musical vision” and “a seasoned follow-up to her widely recognized debut Miki” by Mike Jurkovic of All About Jazz.
Yamanaka’s fervent, muscular performance is only augmented by her esteemed houseguests Orlando le Fleming and Mark Turner, both of whom are prolific bandleaders and sidemen with a who’s who of jazz luminaries. Yamanaka notes “I was always a huge fan of Mark, and had never gotten to play with him before COVID. He is busy usually, as a leader and a sideman. I was too excited when both of them showed up to my apartment!”
Yamanaka’s stellar original compositions shine on Stairway to the Stars, her tune “Oatmeal” makes its recording debut, this soulful piece highlights the cohesiveness of this small ensemble of New York staples. Turner’s sax soars over Yamanaka’s bluesy harmonic refrains as le Fleming’s thoughtful bass lines provide the track with a tight-knit swing and buoyancy. Yamanaka demonstrates her stunning facility at melodic invention over the tune’s jaunty changes.
The ensemble lends its instrumental agility and refinement to a diverse array of jazz classics including old chestnuts such as “My Melancholy Baby” and “Tea For Two”; as well as bebop hits such as Charlie Parker’s 1947 composition “Cheryl”, and Steve Swallow’s lush composition “Eiderdown”. Each composition activates new territory for the seemingly boundless outfit to explore, leaving the listener with a comprehensive album that acts as a masterclass in interplay and dynamics.
Yamanaka notes “I will never take it for granted to be able to be with my favorite people making music, drinking nice wine, eating nice food together, ever again. It made me realize how important that is in my life.” Stairway to the Stars seemingly captures the excited, joyous energy of a confluence of fine musicians and friends gathering together to do what they do best.
The Kobe, Japan native, who has lived in New York City since 2012. A student of Jason Lindner, Jeb Patton, Fred Hersch, Sam Yahel, and Larry Goldings, in 2015 she was one of three pianists selected to participate in “Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead”, an intensive composition residency at the Kennedy Center. She earned her Master of Music degree from Queens College. Miki has appeared in concert with many notable musicians including Steve Nelson, Seamus Blake, Jerry Dodgion, Victor Lewis, Rich Perry, Antonio Hart, and Peter Bernstein. She holds residencies at Smalls and Mezzrow Jazz Clubs in New York City and has had multiple week-long engagements at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola since 2016. She is the current pianist in the Philip Harper Quintet, the Roxy Coss Quintet, and the Antonio Hart Group. Miki recorded an EP, “Songs Without Lyrics” in 2012, which featured Lawrence “Lo” Leathers, Tivon Pennicott, and Spencer Murphy, she released her aforementioned debut album, “Miki” with Steve Nelson, Orlando le Fleming, and Bill Stewart in 2018 and “Human Dust Suite” in 2020 alongside alto saxophonist Anthony Orji, bassist Orlando le Fleming, and drummer Jochen Rueckert.
Human Dust Suite
Release date: September 18, 2020
Label: Outside in Music
New York-based musician and composer Miki Yamanaka’s dynamic new album Human Dust Suite will be released on Outside in Music on September 18th, 2020. A follow up to her critically acclaimed debut Miki (Cellar Live, 2018), Human Dust Suite paints a profound portrait of the human experience, with the eponymously named 5-part suite as the centerpiece. Yamanaka, who on this outing performs on vibraphone in addition to piano, is joined by alto saxophonist Anthony Orji, bassist Orlando le Fleming, and drummer Jochen Rueckert.
Human Dust Suite takes its name and inspiration from Hungarian-American conceptual artist Agnes Denes’ striking photograph “Human Dust”. Produced in 1969, the subject of Denes’ photograph is, at first, startling: a mound of human remains after cremation. When Yamanaka first encountered the work on display at The Art Institute of Chicago, she realized something obvious, yet deeply profound: “in the end, we all end up the same way.” This moment inspired her to compose the “Human Dust Suite”, each movement representative of a different body part. Each title symbolizes something greater that leads to happiness- like Movement III, “Tummy”, inspired by a love for food and nourishment, and IV, “Feet Go Bad First”, because, as Yamanaka says in her liner notes, “how awesome to be able to walk and to run.” This introspective meditation on humankind speaks to the strength and unity of humans, as a response to the scene of human frailty that Denes’ artwork seems to conjure.
Master organist Larry Goldings writes in the album’s liner notes that ““The Human Dust Suite” is the centerpiece of this record, and a wonderful example of the breadth of Miki’s musical vision.” He goes on to say, “...let the music herein be a reminder that great jazz requires togetherness. And Miki Yamanaka and her band have their togetherness, together.” In a time of social distancing, Goldings’ words resonate deeply.
While “Human Dust Suite” is the heart of the album, it is bookended by three songs on each side that are decidedly more lighthearted and showcase Yamanka’s range as a composer. The album’s opening track, “Pre-School” is inspired by jazz great Lee Konitz while “March” is Yamanaka’s tribute to an idol, Mulgrew Miller, whose playing and composing had a profound effect on her. Her original composition “First Day of Spring”, which particularly highlights Orji, comes next before launching into the “Human Dust Suite”.
Two originals come next. “O 2017” is described as a “palate cleanser” and features the leader on vibraphone. “This song and “Hatsu” (from the suite), were written for two parts, and I decided to overdub those melodies and harmonies on vibes,” said Yamanaka, adding that she practiced her vibraphone chops diligently at Smalls Jazz Club, where she is a regular performer. “After The Night” is the final original, before leading into an innovative 5/4 take on Randy Weston’s “Berkshire Blues”.
Human Dust Suite is a career milestone for the Kobe, Japan native, who has lived in New York City since 2012. A student of Jason Lindner, Jeb Patton, Fred Hersch, Sam Yahel, and Larry Goldings, in 2015 she was one of three pianists selected to participate in “Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead”, an intensive composition residency at the Kennedy Center. She earned her Master of Music degree from Queens College. Miki has appeared in concert with many notable musicians including Steve Nelson, Seamus Blake, Jerry Dodgion, Victor Lewis, Rich Perry, Antonio Hart, and Peter Bernstein. She holds residencies at Smalls and Mezzrow Jazz Clubs in New York City and has had multiple week-long engagements at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola since 2016. She is the current pianist in the Philip Harper Quintet, the Roxy Coss Quintet, and the Antonio Hart Group. Miki recorded an EP, “Songs Without Lyrics” in 2012, which featured Lawrence “Lo” Leathers, Tivon Pennicott, and Spencer Murphy and released her aforementioned album, “Miki” with Steve Nelson, Orlando le Fleming, and Bill Stewart in 2018.
for Stairway To The Stars
"Yamanaka and her musical partners have succeeded with Stairway to the Stars, displaying supreme musicianship seemingly devoid of ego and full of heart." Read this review here.
"On the sinuous, swinging original 'Oatmeal,' which nods in the direction of Cedar Walton, their rapport is relaxed yet driving, with an elegant resolution around every sharp corner." Read the full Take Five feature here.
MAKING A SCENE
"The joyous energy of this small gathering is palpable." Read the full review here.
THE REHEARSAL STUDIO
.." this is the perfect album for listening under pandemic conditions, thinking more about imaginative approaches to making music as the perfect alternative to succumbing to the Slough of Despond." Read the full review here.
Critically acclaimed pianist/composer/arranger Miki Yamanaka has released her new arrangement of the iconic jazz standard, “Tea for Two,” originally composed by Vincent Youmans in 1924. Yamanaka’s version is one of the tracks from her upcoming drumless piano trio record, Stairway to the Stars, due out October 1 on Outside in Music. The LP was recorded at home alongside consummate bassist Orlando le Fleming and saxophonist Mark Turner. Pre-order it here.
for Human Dust Suite
THE JAZZ SESSIONS
Pianist Miki Yamanaka‘s new album is Human Dust Suite. In this interview, Yamanaka talks about the artwork that inspired the suite; how she left a graduate program in seismology in Japan to become a jazz pianist in New York; why she chose the specific players who accompany her on the album; and more. Listen ti this podcast here.
"Human Dust Suite doesn't push the envelope in any daringly experimental, future-thinking way but instead embraces its in-the-tradition post-bop sound with sincerity and humility. There's nevertheless much pleasure to be had when the quartet plays at such a consistently high level and the participants are so engaged and committed." Read the full review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Miki Yamanaka brings a decisively more leavened gravity and a growing harmonic interest and prowess on vibes to Human Dust Suite, a seasoned follow-up to her widely recognized debut Miki." Read this full review here.
NEW YORK MUSIC DAILY
"A warmly bounding piano theme propelled by the circling grooves of bassist Orlando le Fleming and drummer Jochen Rueckert, saxophonist Anthony Orji providing balmy ambience overhead." Read this full review here.
MAKING A SCENE!
"Yamanka’s quartet is the essence of jazz communication and dynamics, a showcase for her inventive piano playing where her flair for melody is balanced by her penchant for dark chords. Yet, the overriding takeaway is her exceptional compositional skill." Read this full review here.
"Not one to find her work at bar mitzvahs and airport hotel lounges, she's got edge and verve swinging at all times and paying tribute to the tradition while moving it forward. A straight up good time." Read this full review here.
"We appreciate the entanglement of collective improvisation, controlled freedom, breaks in tempo and climate." Read the full review in the Dec/Jan 2021 issue of Jazz Magazine.
"Human Dust Suite III: Tummy is a gentle, but joyous piece that conjures the pleasure evident on a cat’s face when you rub its belly." Read this full review here.
D. OSCAR GROOMES
"Human Dust Suite is excellent." Read the full review in the Summer 2021 O's Place Newsletter.